Adam Le Nevez writes for Tunisia Live:
Several thousand women and men, many of whom were draped in Tunisian flags, gathered in front of the Constituent Assembly in Bardo today to demand the recognition and reiteration of the rights and freedoms of women in the new Tunisia.
The peaceful protest drew people from a wide range of ages and social backgrounds who rallied around calls for Tunisia to keep a progressive, pluralist identity.
Originally organized to mark International Women’s Day, the demonstration took on added significance yesterday when a Tunisian flag was desecrated during violent confrontations between progressive and Salafist students at Manouba University in the outskirts of Tunis. This event, captured in amateur video, has fast become a rallying point for progressive Tunisians who are increasingly fearful about the influence of Salafism and other Islamist movements in Tunisia.
During the 2011 revolution, the Tunisian flag came to symbolize not only the nation but the aspirations of the Tunisian people. The attack on the flag is being interpreted by many as a symbolic attack on national identity.
“My country’s flag is precious and it flutters in the sky” and “We will sacrifice our blood and soul for our flag” were common chants that could be heard around the square.
Madame Mechri, one of the protesters interviewed, said that she was there to protest against the events at Manouba University. “Yesterday [the Salafists] crossed a line, for us the flag is sacred, it is our identity,” said Mechri.
Sarah, a young Masters student at the University of Carthage agreed, “I came because of what happened yesterday. The fact that they touched the flag – it’s something serious.”
Many of the protesters were there to defend the gains made by Tunisian women in the half-century since Tunisia became independent. Some expressed a fear that their hard-won rights were now being put at risk.
“Men don’t risk losing their rights, but we do,” Mechri argued. Sarah said that she was “afraid of Salafists who want to change the country. I want to see a modern Tunisia.”
Afifa, a 55 year-old urban architect, took a day’s holiday so she could come to the rally. “I think the 8th of March is an important day for democrats and progressives – it’s a day that’s almost sacred,” she said. Afifa was frustrated by “the antagonistic struggle between reactionaries and progressists” and blamed the Constituent Assembly for failing to lead the nation through the revolutionary period.
Yasmine Bhar, a student who has a part-time job in a call center, was another protester who had given up a days’ pay to attend the protest. “I’m afraid actually. I’m afraid for my Tunisia, for my future, for my rights” she said. She too was frustrated by a perception that too little was being done, both by the government and citizens to counter the influence of the Islamist movement. “I hope that people move. I want people to stop being cowardly and indifferent,” she said.
Raja and Rim, two psychiatrists from Tunis, were also participating in the rally. They were there “because we are women, we are citizens, we are responsible, and we are informed.” They saw the protest as a chance for women and men who are growing increasingly anxious about the future to develop a sense of unity and solidarity. “Tunisians are anxious and worried about the future, and this is a cathartic experience.” They argued that the current contestation over collective identity comes from personal insecurity and in particular “people who are preoccupied by their own identity.”
However, according to Raja and Rim, most Tunisian women were strong and were not suffering from an identity crisis. “Serenity rhymes with liberty and dignity – two key words of the Arab revolutions,” they said.